There are many ways that Oliver Hermanus (Moffie) could have ruined his remake of Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 classic of soulful humanism. Like many of the more crucial entries in the postwar non-Hollywood film canon, Ikiru is rendered with a simple and pristine artistry that the modern crop of hyperactive filmmakers could not stop themselves from overcomplicating.
Kurosawa’s original is also a hopeful but mournful story about death to which many directors (like Steven Spielberg, who counts Ikiru as a favorite and had mused about making his version) would add a sentimental gleam. While Hermanus’ update, Living, adds nothing crucial, it also stays true to the spirit of Kurosawa’s story.
Scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro, Living keeps the early 1950s time period, transposing Kurosawa’s story quite neatly from Tokyo to London, another capital city smothered under war trauma, social stricture, and emotional repression. Bill Nighy plays Williams, the head of a small unit of Public Works bureaucrats. His emotional register leaves as narrow a footprint as the work his people never seem to accomplish. Having buried himself in routine since the death of his wife, Williams keeps the world itself at bay by very simply never engaging.
The irony of the film’s title is apparent in the deathly silence Williams wraps himself in at home and the anxious hush he carries into the crowded office where government forms are shuffled about to little purpose. That air of enervating stillness pervades the office to the point where the newest employee, Peter (Alex Sharp), finds his boyish buoyancy almost immediately stifled. His co-workers are barely more alive, advising him to keep the “skyscraper” of paperwork on his desk just high enough, so he looks important but not so high that he appears inefficient.
Living’s purposeful stiffness is given a jolt when Williams gets a surprise message from his doctor: he has six months to live, maybe nine. Hermanus does not dwell on the details. Occasionally Williams will wince from pain, and once, we see blood on his handkerchief. Otherwise, the pain is spiritual and emotional. Breaking from his routine, in the quiet terror of suddenly approaching death, he heads to a beachside resort town. Not a creature of spontaneity, his plan is a bit confused: it involves a giant pile of cash and many bottles of sleeping pills.
Meeting Sutherland (Tom Burke), a cheerily louche knockabout boozer and aspiring artiste, Williams takes the non-suicide path and has a night on the town. But hours of trawling through magnificently captured smokey after-hours joints and a beachside burlesque show, even rasping out an old folk tune that brings a roomful of boozers close to tears, get him no closer to life. Nor do the afternoons he spends avoiding work with Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), one of the cheerier bureaucrats on his team. What saves him is finally doing his job.
The turn that Williams finally takes has a certain Christmas Carol feel, though hewing much closer to the character’s lower profile. He never charges about in a sudden fit of carpe diem seizing or spontaneously breaks into a dance. After all, this is a man whose office nickname is “Mr. Zombie” and who is so repressed he downplays news of his impending demise by saying, “It’s quite a bore, really.”
About the most that Williams ever does to break character is buy a fedora after his trademark bowler is stolen, though this is enough of a change in routine to turn people’s heads. Hermanus and Ishiguro play Williams’ search for a purpose in an appropriately buttoned-down manner for the setting. Not only is there never a Robin Williams-ian explosion of life-affirming joy, but the crusade that Williams undertakes—battling his own bureaucracy to turn a bombed-out courtyard into a playground—happens largely off-screen.
As a handsomely mounted period piece, Living takes seriously its responsibility to provide pleasing images of prettily attired people in lavishly tasteful surroundings. The Sandy Powell outfits are runway-worthy, and Jamie Ramsay’s cinematography (who captured the same London quite nicely in Tom George’s See How They Run) is sparkling. Living is also a classic December awards release, pivoting around a stellar turn from a pro like Nighy. His gangly reticence has rarely been used to such strong effect. If there is such a thing as graceful lurching, he has it nailed, stalking stiffly through the film like some faded knight errant, hand on his cane as though it were a sword or scepter.
His character’s quietude contains multitudes, though. The seeming smallness of Living‘s central gesture, finding purpose in a little playground, is rendered magnificent not by a soaring score or aching sob but by the look in Williams’ eyes as he idly swings, frightened of death but content that in the end, he may actually have lived.